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Oil and tempera: 15th century

For the powdered grains of a coloured pigment to stick to a ground, such as a wood panel, they must be suspended in a liquid - known as a binder, or binding agent. In the painting of panels in Italy this substance has usually been yoke of egg (referred to as tempera when mixed with pigment).

In northern Europe, from about the 13th century, vegetable oil has also been used for the purpose - usually the oil of linseed, walnut or poppy. The main difference is that tempera, when it dries, is matt and opaque. But oil dries in a hard transparent skin, enabling colours applied earlier to glow through thinner surface layers known as 'glazes'.

In the work of master painters such as Campin, van Eyck or van der Weyden, it is oil paint which makes possible their subtle and detailed realism, capturing the play of light on the familiar surfaces of everyday objects.

Somewhere around 1460 Italian artists begin to adopt the northern technique, and by the next century it has virtually supplanted tempera. There are frequent links between Italy and Flanders, both in commerce and in art (from Arnolfini in the 1430s to Portinari in the 1470s), so there are many occasions for the technique of oil to spread. The story told by Vasari, that it is brought to Italy by Antonello da Messina, is unlikely to be true - though Antonello's use of it does impress Venice.

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